Mark Richt, the 2011 Georgia Bulldogs, and the Need for Boldness

(Author’s Note: I realize that it ordinarily is poor form to raise the subject of religion in polite society, and particularly on a sports weblog, but, as someone who is given to delivering "unforgettable" rants "of the year," I sometimes find self-restraint difficult, so I ask for your indulgence. Just sit back, have yourself a nice drink of tea, and enjoy the ride.)

L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!


General George S. Patton

(citing Frederick the Great)

Frequently, on Sunday mornings, our pastor dismisses the congregation by closing the worship service with an exhortation to walk boldly in our faith. Certainly, Mark Richt is a Christian who walks boldly in his faith, but is he equally bold on the sidelines on Saturday afternoons?

At the top of the list of Paul Westerdawg’s complaints about the state of the program is the absence of a sense of urgency on the Georgia Bulldogs’ coaching staff. Another way of phrasing that same concern is to state that the team whose championship-winning defense once was anchored by one George Patton is failing adequately to exhibit the quality of boldness advocated by another George Patton.

Unfortunately, audacity appears to be a diminishing resource, in football coaches as much so as in the rest of us. Men like Mark Richt’s mentor, Bobby Bowden, and Mark Richt’s nemesis, Tommy Tuberville, built their reputations as riverboat gamblers early in their careers before being criticized for being overly conservative later in their tenures. As the saying goes, "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots."

This is not news to those of us in Bulldog Nation; Vince Dooley, the winningest football coach in our history, became less of a risk-taker toward the close of his time on the Sanford Stadium sideline. Likewise, Mark Richt has grown more cautious with age, as evidenced by the boldness of his fourth-down gambit against Clemson in 2002, as compared to the timidity of his fourth-down decision against Central Florida in 2010; not coincidentally, the former game began an SEC championship run for the first time in 20 years, while the latter outing concluded a losing season for the first time in a decade and a half. Neither Coach Dooley nor Coach Richt was well-served by this shift from the brazen to the reserved.

Which worked better for the Bulldogs, the cautiousness of the first half against Florida and the second half against Auburn, or the wide-open attack of the first half against Auburn and the second half against Florida? Were the Red and Black better off calling an on-side kick against the best-coached special teams in the country or letting an on-side kick be executed against them in last year’s seesaw battle on the Plains? Did the ‘Dawgs do better by running, running, and running some more against Georgia Tech to end the 2009 season or by going away from what was working against Oklahoma State to begin it? These questions are strictly rhetorical, as there is no serious argument to be mounted on behalf of the obviously erroneous side.

There have been positive signs suggesting the re-emergence of boldness this offseason, as player arrests have ceased, recruiting has improved, the strength and conditioning program has been overhauled, and Coach Richt has displayed passion at Bulldog Club meetings, though these may be mere mirages. We know this, though: Coach Richt’s surrender of the play-calling duties to Mike Bobo led directly to the aforementioned on-side kick against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the 2006 Chick-fil-A Bowl, and Coach Richt attributed that move to a call from on high.

When Mark Richt changed offensive coordinators, he immediately showed more guts, and what followed was a 2007 season that was extremely successful and quite a lot of fun. Vince Dooley was more audacious when Erk Russell was running his defense, and not without good reason; after trading down in defensive coordinators, Coach Dooley became more cautious. Coach Richt traded up when he swapped Willie Martinez for Todd Grantham, and, now that Coach Grantham has the tools he needs to make his scheme work, Coach Richt again ought to be inspired to be bold once more by a change in coordinators.

In the end, Mark Richt’s willingness to walk boldly in the faith he practices on, but not just on, Sunday mornings may be what leads him to walk boldly in the faith that should sustain him on Saturday afternoons. Coach Richt is a man who lives by the maxim "WWJD?"; he should recall that Jesus of Nazareth was not a "play it safe" sort of Savior. The God who told Coach Richt to let Coach Bobo call the plays is a God who wants His disciples to go for it. The meek may inherit the earth, but they will not win the SEC East, and, when facing the field before us, we should buy it with much gusto rather than play the percentages. The older Mark Richt would do well to recall the bolder Mark Richt, and to recognize that a man of conviction ought to be willing to take a leap of faith on fourth and short.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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